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Asia on the cheap: Shanghai edition
Welcome to the first edition of Asia on the Cheap!
My partner and I have moved out of our Bangkok apartment, packed our bags, and are travelling across Asia before returning home to Europe after years of living abroad.
The first stop on this tour was Shanghai, China’s biggest, brightest, and shiniest metropolis.
After falling in love with Chongqing and Chengdu earlier in the year, we decided to return to China and explore another city.
We didn’t know much about Shanghai before we touched down in Pudong International Airport, but we found it to be much more laid-back, arty, and budget-friendly than expected.
Highlights in Shanghai
We spent a total of 6 days in Shanghai; enough time to explore the city and still have some down time. These are our top highlights:
Wandering the residential backstreets
We love nothing more than exploring meandering alleyways to see where locals live, eat, and shop. Our hotel was close to an area of charming backstreets where small houses opened out to the street, and big families could be seen gathered around their kitchen tables at dinnertime.
It reminded me of local community life in Thailand, where the neighbours all know and speak to each other, and where private lives are also somewhat public. It’s the opposite to the intensively private way most of us typically live: holed up in individual houses or apartments, not knowing who lives around us, and often feeling lonely and isolated. While I’m sure there are many Shanghai residents who live in towering condominium blocks, it was nice to see a small slice of community living.
These small streets were also full of local eats: cheap diners selling delicious noodles, and street vendors selling local snacks.
To find these backstreets, all you have to do is get away from the main roads. To avoid getting hopelessly lost while doing this, we downloaded the Shanghai map on the Maps.me app, which gives you access to GPS without needed an internet connection. It also works much better than Google Maps, which even with a VPN doesn’t seem to give an accurate location.
Soaking in the atmosphere in public parks
There are a surprising number of beautiful parks in Shanghai, some of which were fantastic for people-watching, and others which were perfect for quiet contemplation.
We loved Fuxing Park, which was full of people playing mahjong, doing Tai Chi, and choreographed dancing. The Shanghai marriage market in People’s Park was also a bizarre sight to see, which is where parents try to attract suitors for their single children.
Other parks we stumbled across were quite empty and peaceful, but always well-kept and beautifully designed. Most of these parks were also home to a number of super cute cats, which if you like cats is a definite plus.
Taking the free Shanghai walking tour
I checked out Meetup.com before we flew to Shanghai, and signed up for two walking tours. We took these two days in a row, which helped us gain an understanding of the city’s history, architecture, and main points of interest in a short amount of time.
The first tour was a walk around central Shanghai, taking in the sites around People’s Square, East Nanjing Road (a bustling pedestrian shopping street), and the Bund. The second tour was around the French Concession – an area of Shanghai previously owned by the French.
We loved both tours; it was nice to be guided around by a local resident, and was also a great opportunity to meet foreign teachers living in Shanghai, and other travellers. The tours are donation-based, and run by an energetic and passionate young woman called Dinna. Check them out!
OMG the street snacks… so plentiful and so cheap. The first free walking tour introduced us to a great snack street just off of East Nanjing Road, and we encountered other snacks on our wanders.
My favourite snacks included veggie baozi, flaky pancakes, and an egg-spinach combo deep-fried in pastry. However, I ate my snacks so quickly I forgot to take pictures of most of them!
As a pescatarian (I eat fish and shrimp, but no meat), I showed the following phrase to vendors and serving staff whenever in doubt about the food.
It says something like: “Hello, please no meat I am a vegetarian/I abstain from eating meat.” This phrase was an absolute life-saver earlier in the year when we were in China, and it opened my eyes (and belly!) to all of the delicious vegetarian options on offer.
Modern Chinese art has exploded in terms of value and recognition in the west, and there are plenty of places in Shanghai to explore the works of different artists.
Our favourite place was the M50 Art District, which is a collection of streets lined with artists’ studios and galleries. You can go into one gallery after the other, taking in the diversity of the work (i.e. some is amazing, some is rather generic). To get there, get off at Jiangning Road metro station on Line 13, and walk for about 10 minutes.
The other place we checked out was the Power Station of Art. Similar to the Tate Modern in London, it’s an art space housed in a decommissioned power station. There were several exhibitions on the different floors, only one of which required a ticket.
How much we spent
We definitely thought that in a city home to multiple billionaires, we would be spending a fair amount on food and transport. Instead, we had difficulty spending all of the cash we took out of the ATM. We took out 1,000 CNY to start with, but ended up leaving to Japan with yuan still in our pockets.
We could have spent so much more in Shanghai; there are certainly opportunities for expensive tours and cocktails on rooftop bars. But as you can see from the above, most of the things we did didn’t require much money.
Excluding accommodation, I spent less in China than what I usually do in Bangkok, even though most of my time in Bangkok was spent in an office!
This is how our spending broke down over the 6 days:
£65.47 per person
We took the cheapest AirAsia flight from Bangkok, leaving at midnight. The flight was about 5 hours long, bringing us into Shanghai in the early morning. While we saved money, it definitely wasn’t pleasant travelling overnight! Thankfully we could check into our hotel early, and sleep until 3pm to recover.
£89.55 per person
£16.81 per night + £5.50 (50 CNY) for late check-out
Accommodation was the highest expense on this trip. We chose a fairly standard Chinese chain hotel – Jinjiang Inn Select Shanghai Xintiandi South Xizang Road Branch (what a mouthful!).
The hotel was in fairly a central location, so we were in walking distance to most places of interest. They also gave us a very generous breakfast in a brown bag every morning, which kept us going til early afternoon.
We really liked the hotel; although none of the hotel staff spoke any English, they tried to be as helpful as possible, and the room was very cosy and clean. We decided to pay for late checkout, as our next flight to Japan was also a night flight.
£4.30 per person (39 CNY)
I’m surprised that we spent so little on transport. This amount includes our trip to and from the airport! We saved money by opting to take the metro all the way to and from the airport, instead of taking the more exciting high-speed Maglev train. We had time to spare before and after flights, so we didn’t feel a need to spend 50 RMB for the Maglev, when we could spend 7 CNY and sit for an hour reading on the metro.
Since our hotel was located somewhat between People’s Park and the French Concession, we often found ourselves walking instead of taking the metro, which saved on transport costs.
Food and drink
£17.47 per person (158.50 CNY)
Just wow – I’m looking at this figure now and am wondering how we did this (as I write from Japan where we spend at least this on a daily basis).
While we generally found the food options to be a bit more expensive than when we travelled to Chengdu and Chongqing, there were still plentiful cheap options. Not eating meat, eating in very local places, and having a free hotel breakfast certainly helped to keep costs down.
I also have a great love of baozi and had at least two a day at just 22p (2 CNY) per bun.
Sightseeing and entertainment
£11 per person (100 CNY)
We gave a total of 100 CNY as a donation for each of the walking tours we joined. Other than that, we spent zero on sightseeing or entertainment, because most of what we saw was free.
£4.17 (38 CNY)
Toothpaste: £0.56 (5 CNY)
Gifts: £3.63 (33 CNY)
VPN: £9.88 (12.95 USD)
We needed some toothpaste. Also, after discovering Szechuan chili-flavoured Snickers bars, I bought about six to give to friends and family at our next stop in Tokyo.
A VPN is also a necessity in China if you plan to use Gmail, Facebook, and several other websites and services that are blocked by the Great Firewall. We went with the same VPN provider we used on our earlier trip, Express VPN.
Total trip cost
That brings the total trip cost to just £191.96. Not bad for six enjoyable days in China’s largest metropolis!
Things we didn’t spend money on
As mentioned earlier, we could have spent a lot more money in Shanghai, and I’m sure an average tourist in Shanghai might have a higher daily spending rate. But we made a conscious decision to only spend money on things that would bring us value. This did not include:
China is very much a tea-drinking nation, which means that there are few independent coffee shops, and instead a dominance of Starbucks. A cup of coffee started at around 30 CNY (£3.29). Given we could eat an amazing dinner for less, we decided to forgo coffee, and drink the tea we brought with us instead.
Western food and snacks
We saw a lot of excellent non-Chinese eateries: pizzerias, French bakeries, burger places, and tapas joints. If we were living in Shanghai, we’d probably go to those places on a frequent basis, since we’d eventually get tired of Chinese food. But with only 6 days in China, there was no way I was wasting any meals on pizza, no matter how good it was.
We also reined in our tendency to buy crisps, chocolate, and ice cream every day. As this was our first week travelling, we were trying to embrace healthier eating habits. Apart from indulging in several chili-flavoured Snickers bars, I was mostly able to keep off the processed sugar.
Although Shanghai is much famed for its night-life, we didn’t have the energy to go out drinking. After walking at least 15,000 steps every day, we would crash at 9pm! After working a 9-5 for so long, we were clearly out of practice of walking so much 🙂
We’re carrying tiny backpacks, so there’s no room for souvenirs. With my minimalist tendencies, I have no interest in collecting little knick-knacks.
Making use of the transit visa
We heard about the 144-hour transit visa option, which allows you to stay in China without having to apply for and pay for a visa.
In order to qualify, you need to have a qualifying passport, and be flying out to a different city you came from, i.e. fly out of Bangkok to Shanghai, and then fly to Tokyo. This special transit visa is only valid if you are flying into certain cities, like Shanghai or Beijing. This guide gives you more information.
By making use of the transit visa, we saved £35 (the cost of getting a visa in Bangkok), and time on making the application.
A note on changing money
If possible, get money from the ATM when you arrive. The various currency exchange counters in the airport charge a commission of 45 CNY (£4.95) per transaction! We ended up changing our excess yuan in Tokyo airport instead, and ended up getting a much better rate without paying commission.
That’s a wrap on Shanghai! Have you been or planning to go? Comment below!